Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism, by Ibn Warraq (Prometheus Books, 500 pp., $29.95)
The West hasn’t been doing well in the war of ideas against Islamic jihadists. We fail to understand the true nature of Muslim doctrine, and a self-loathing long entrenched in our public discourse often cripples us. The eagerness of our intellectuals, scholars, and artists to don the hair shirt of colonial, imperial, racist, and xenophobic guilt has heartened our enemies and convinced them that for all of our economic and military power, we are rotten to the core and ripe for destruction.
The most pernicious example of this cultural pathology is the work of the late Edward Said, whose 1978 book Orientalism asserted that Western scholars had constructed a false image of the inferior Middle Eastern “Other” to facilitate and justify colonial and imperial oppression. Said’s incoherent amalgam of dubious postmodern theory, sentimental Third Worldism, glaring historical errors, and Western guilt corrupted not just Middle Eastern Studies departments but other disciplines, too, such as English and “culture studies.” More: it provided justifications for Islamic failure and aggression as understandable responses to Western crimes.
The enduring influence of Said’s thesis makes Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism crucial reading for anyone concerned with winning the war of ideas. Ibn Warraq is the pen name of the brave apostate whose Why I Am Not a Muslim laid out, against what some still call the “religion of peace,” a powerful case that earned him death threats and forced him to live incognito. At a time when even some conservatives hesitate to speak the truth about both Islam and the West’s superiority, Defending the West is a much-needed brief for the West’s unique virtues.
The first part of Defending the West offers a withering critique of Orientalism that complements Bernard Lewis’s and Keith Windschuttle’s equally devastating analyses. Warraq exposes Said’s numerous historical inaccuracies, the self-contradictions inherent in his postmodern assumptions (truth is a mere construct that serves power, except when the truth in question is Said’s thesis), his misrepresentation of scholarship through selective quotation and omission (he ignores German Orientalists because the Germans had no Middle Eastern colonies, for example), and his verbal blunders (such as confusing “eschatological” with “scatological”). Most important is the observation that Said’s relentless depiction of the “Orient” as a passive victim of the West—lacking its own agency, voice, or motivating values—ultimately paints a picture of Oriental inferiority even more distorted than his descriptions of Western scholarship.
Warraq then turns to Said’s misrepresentation of the West as a xenophobic culture, fearful of the “Other” and cultural difference. Warraq explodes this canard by identifying what he calls the “three golden threads” woven through Western culture since the time of the Greeks: rationalism, universalism, and self-criticism. As Warraq argues, Western intellectual curiosity has driven an interest in other cultures and peoples and created a magnificent edifice of scholarship formalizing that interest. The Western notion of a universal human nature reinforced this intellectual openness to other cultures. And self-criticism has been the engine of the West’s improvement, leading to the rejection of traditional practices that were unjust or inefficient, as Warraq shows with his discussion of the British Empire’s war on slavery. In fact, the West’s most trenchant critics, Said included, have always been Westerners.
It is the absence of these golden threads, Warraq believes, not Western crimes abetted by “Orientalism,” that accounts for the backwardness and stagnation of the Muslim Middle East—a region that with few exceptions lacks interest in other peoples, adheres unthinkingly to fossilized traditions, and is unable to look critically at its failures. These characteristics have fostered a paranoid cult of victimhood that blames the West for the failures of Middle Eastern regimes. Said’s work encourages such thinking: “In cultures already immune to self-criticism,” Warraq writes, “Said helped Muslims and particularly Arabs, perfect their already well-developed sense of self-pity.”
Warraq provides numerous historical examples of how the West’s three golden threads fostered a remarkably sympathetic interest in other cultures and peoples. From the Greeks to the heyday of the British Empire, many Western travelers, scholars, historians, archaeologists, and others described Oriental peoples sympathetically and often admiringly. Negative descriptions of Islam were often accurate reflections of experience with a militarist, aggressive culture that for centuries raided European towns and carried off Europeans as slaves. Even so, Western thinkers continued to find Islam fascinating. Robert of Ketton completed the first Western translation of the Koran in 1143. In the thirteenth century, Roger Bacon asserted that “philosophy is the special province of the unbelievers,” and urged Christian scholars to learn Arabic. It speaks volumes that a millennium later, such intellectual curiosity about the “Other” and his ways is hard to find in the Muslim Middle East—whose inhabitants, the United Nations reports, have translated fewer books over the last 1,000 years than Spain translates in one year.
Warraq provides a particularly valuable analysis of Said’s fundamental error, which most of those practicing what writers Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit call “Occidentalism” share: criticizing the West without first establishing a historical standard of human behavior against which to measure its putative crimes. “In Said’s works,” Warraq points out, “there is no room for historical comparisons.” Yet such comparisons are vital in forming judgments about a civilization, for the only legitimate standard is the historical record of how people have acted over time. Consider slavery, says Warraq—an institution abolished only through the ideals and efforts of the West. Muslims, on the other hand, exported more slaves from Africa than the Western powers did, and brutally castrated many of these Africans for service as eunuchs. Let’s not forget, either, the million Europeans kidnapped and enslaved between 1530 and 1780, or the fact that slavery still exists today in several Muslim nations.
So too with racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Christian bigotry, Arab imperialism, and the Muslim violence that has claimed millions of Muslim victims: Said ignores all of these as he castigates the West. Yet the practice of universal human evils cannot be what makes the West exceptional. Rather, the West’s uniqueness lies in its identification of them as evils, to resist and eliminate. To attack the West outside the context of what all states and peoples have done is simplistic bigotry.
Warraq, however, is honest enough to accept that his three golden threads have a tendency to degenerate into dangerous weaknesses. Rationalism becomes scientism, universalism becomes a flabby tolerance that disguises a lack of conviction, and self-criticism becomes an irrational self-hatred. Add multiculturalism’s sentimental adulation of a non-Western “Other,” superior to the money-grubbing Westerner, and the self-loathing West has essentially validated the jihadists’ reasons for wanting to destroy it. Yet despite these developments, the great ideas of the West—rationalism, self-criticism, the disinterested search for truth, the separation of church and state, freedom of conscience and thought, human rights, and liberal democracy—remain the best means for all people, no matter what race or creed, to reach their full potential and live in freedom.
Exhaustively researched and passionately argued, Defending the West is a ringing call to acknowledge the West’s hard-won goods, now under assault by a fierce enemy marked by cultural pathologies of the sort that Edward Said promulgated. Warraq’s book will help politicians and policymakers explain the importance of our current fight—and the dangerous consequences of failure.